In September 2013 we met up with an Australian couple, we’re friends with, in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was the first time for all four of us to visit Russia, and we were all excited. We had all been to some exotic places, but somehow, going to Russia felt more exotic and adventurous than any of our trips had felt for a while.
The couple we met up with was actually newly-wed and they were on their honeymoon. They had invited us to join. We had initially not shown much interest, because it seemed strange to join another couple on such an occasion, but our friends insisted and we are glad we joined, because it was an unforgettable trip all four of us enjoyed greatly. Our friends had already known each other for many years and had been on their honeymoon trip for several weeks with several more to follow, so to them it was nothing big for us to join them, just nice catching up.
The bus trip from the airport went without any incidents. We were able to shoot a few good photos from the bus, including one of the largest Lenin statue (St. Petersburg used to be called Leningrad for 70 years until it was re-labelled back to St. Petersburg back in 1991, following the end of the Cold War) which stands at 16m high.
Our hotel was central, within walking distance from a good few of the major sights. Peter, as Russians like to refer to St. Petersburg, is a proper heavy-hitter as far as cities go and they’ve done a great job polishing it up to its original beauty since the end of the Cold War. It is Russia’s second largest city after Moscow and boasts nearly 5 million residents.
Unusual for a European city of this size and historic and cultural prominence, it was only founded, by Tsar Peter the Great, in 1703, when cities like Paris, Rome, or London had already been around for 1,700, 1,900 respectively 2,450 years, bit of a late starter, but a very beautiful one.
On our first evening we saw My Fair Lady in Russian at the famous Mariinsky Theatre. Not sure if this is typical for Peter or Russia, but several times mobile phones went off at quite some volume right in our direct proximity (and more further away) and people didn’t just mute the call but picked up the phone and whispered more than just a few words before ending the calls, in one case a lady next to us took three (!) calls during the midst of the action, quite amazing (we took it with humour and thought it was funny, not sure what the guys on stage thought).
The venue is very stylish and during the interim we enjoyed champagne (dirt-cheap compared with London) and canapes and did some people-watching.
The following day we spent 6 hours exploring the world-famous Hermitage, Peter’s art museum. As expected, it was absolutely brilliant. We got lost several times and it took us some time to pin down our location in the vast building complex that houses one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, the former residence of Russian Emperors (well, part of the complex was an imperial palace: the Winter Palace) has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items.
Some of the highlights included walking through the Tsar’s library and the Picasso Room, visiting the Gold Room (you guessed it, it’s gold-plated all around with and stuffed with lots of items made of massive gold), and being freaked out at the sight of a Fantastic Beast, Guardian of the Buddhist Law, Dunhuang, Mogao Caves, Buddhist monastery, 8th century.
The following two days before our return to London we spent on a mixture of sight-seeing, a very pleasant two-hour boat-trip that went through the tiny canals and then onto the Neva river and into the Gulf of Finland and back, and checking out the restaurant scene and the night-life.
The Church of the Spilled Blood was very impressive and we also liked several of the famous underground train stations which are each decorated very artfully and in different styles.
We enjoyed the view of the Kazan Cathedral from Cafe Singer, a beautiful art nouveau building that was originally constructed for the Singer sewing-machine company, ate bear, lynx, and elk at the Lucky Shot Restaurant, had some vodka shots at Stirka 40° next to the busy washing machines (it’s basically a laundromat that serves drinks and plays reggae). The best meal we probably had at Restaurant Teplo (and very good value and nice atmosphere too), closely followed by Restaurant Rubai.
Can’t really say that we enjoyed the Absinthe at Bar Quarenghi, it just tasted too strong, but the atmosphere was great and we met a few locals whose English was okay. They gave us some more advice on which places to visit and a bit of a feel for how life is in Peter. We were surprised that many people we met were quite open about their opposition to Putin, nothing we would have expected under such an autocratic regime where voicing an ‘incorrect’ opinion can land you in a whole load of trouble.
Another highlight of our trip was our visit to Palkin Restaurant, the place where the Boheme meets.
All the walls were filled with absolutely hilarious oil paintings of Putin, including more than one where he is naked. We’re still puzzled, how this is possible in a country like Russia. Amazing. And very positive. Maybe not all is lost.
We met up with another couple we’re friends with, and who had gotten in touch on short notice (same-day) letting us know that they’re also in St. Petersburg at that moment, which was a nice surprise.
And then it was already time to head back home to London and get some work done. We wished our friends all the best for the rest of their honeymoon and headed off to the airport.